Israeli army invades Nablus again

Palestinian civilians passing Israeli military jeeps blocking main roads in Nablus. (ISM Nablus)

Scores of Israeli army vehicles invaded Nablus today. Surely there can be no claims of a ceasefire on the Israeli side now. Since the Sharm Al Sheikh talks Israel has claimed to be maintaining a ceasefire. Human rights organizations document their breaches weekly.

In Nablus the situation could never have been described as peace. From the Israeli army’s pursuit and killing of two youths on 15th February close on the Sharm talks (one from Balata another from neighbouring Kufr Kalil, they were pursued by a helicopter and shot by ground troops. Medical volunteers were prevented from reaching the scene for some hours. When they eventually retrieved the bodies from the olive groves, they found they had been mutilated with knives), to the assassination in daylight of Brahim Al Smere on 14th April (he was drawn into the street identifying himself to a telephone caller, to be gunned down by waiting Israeli special forces) via the scores of injuries, raids on homes and hundreds of arrests (including Samir Nidal Ahkl Issa.

Medical team trying to get access in the city of Nablus. (ISM Nablus)

The Committee Against Torture in Israel took his case after the Israeli soldiers allowed their dogs to attack and horribly injure him), the nightly harassment from Israeli soldiers driving through and firing, the escorting of settlers into a Palestinian urban area, threatened home demolitions and the continuing closures, curfews and restrictions on movement, no one here can possibly feel that the Israeli forces have a peaceful intent.

Even the more sympathetic news agencies have failed to reports these abuses, local news barely notes this for it has become normalized. Today outside media finally witnessed and reported the Israeli occupation force’s actions. We have a little hope that the world will see now and pressure Israel to at least abide by its latest commitments but we fear the world will say nothing until the Palestinian resistance responds in kind to this Israeli aggression.

An inestimable number of Israeli armed vehicles entered Nablus town before 1pm, speeding around the city and firing randomly. Newly arrived international visitors, unused to the thunderous echoes from Nablus ‘s rocky hillsides thought they were in the midst of a full scale military attack. Apache helicopters whirred overheard, their conspicuous presence preparing residents for an assassination. F-16 fighter jets scorched across the sky (Fighter? The Palestinians have nothing to combat the attacking aircraft in the sky above their homes) and short vapor trails scratched high in the sky were identified by military men as “blank missiles for practice”.

Two medics trying to work during the Israeli military invasion at the entrance of Balata refugee camp. (ISM Nablus)

In the days of a declared ceasefire, what could they legitimately be practising for? Internationals stood dazed in the surreal atmosphere of giant war film set. But real fear would have been understandable. This town has been bombed from the air before. As we stood and tried to track the movement of the jeeps and hummers through the city’s residential areas, phone calls came in from friends in other places. The army was shooting in El Ein refugee camp. Jeeps had arrived at Balata. Homes were being occupied on the hillsides. By the time we arrived the army had left, like a cartoon chase.

Our usually unshakeable Palestinian friends from the medical volunteers became nervous, speculating on the reason for the huge military presence. The aeroplanes, helicopter, drone and tens of ground vehicles are not for nothing, they reasoned. Perhaps they have already filled the city with plain-clothes Special Forces to arrest or kill many people, or perhaps this is a huge military attack on the town like the invasions of 2002.

Some news stations reported that two plain clothes Israelis, Special Forces, had entered the city and were lost presumed taken by Palestinian fighters. It was said that the Israeli army had given the Palestinians two hours to hand them over before a full military attack on the town. The usually boastful resistance brigades denied involvement or knowledge. The story seemed implausible. We spoke with a Captain in the PA forces who also disbelieved it. “If two Israelis were in here, the Israeli army would contact us to ask the fighters to hand them over.” No such contact was made. As is so often the case, the first casualty is truth.

When we reached in Balata ten jeeps and hummers were on the main street outside, with more on the other sides of the camp. No one heard the Israeli occupation army actually announce a curfew but it made little difference. Roads were closed to all Palestinian vehicles, shops were ordered to close and most residents locked themselves inside their homes. Children wandered around inside the camp carrying spent tear gas cans and “rubber” bullet canisters (metal cylinders coated in rubber) like souvenirs. Medics and journalists tried to cross the army line into the camp but the soldiers, reasons for whose presence was still undeclared, denied them entry by aiming their M-16s and declined to discuss the matter.

Doubtless the Israeli media machine will ignore today’s events and more neutral agencies will play down the significance as there is no graphic footage of blood and destruction. Do not be misled into thinking the Israeli forces exercised restraint today. For no disclosed reason, in response to no Palestinian action, hundreds of troops entered a town located in the centre of the West Bank and subjected civilians, already suffering from years of attacks, to a day of fear and anxiety.

Medical volunteers were harassed and hampered in their work. Ambulances were not allowed into the camp. Acutely ill residents had to be carried to the gate where they could be handed over under the scrutiny of jeeps and hummers. Even when medics and internationals accompanied a sick amputee to his home along a street outside the camp they were tailed and harassed by soldiers all the way. Without provocation the army hurled gas grenades into the camp. Palestinian youths laughed as inexperienced internationals scattered, abandoning phones, bags and expensive cameras as they ran. Children dutifully returned the items and brought onions (to relieve the effects of the gas) and water while the visitors composed themselves.

Later two foreigners, one an international journalist, were cornered in a shop front by a gas grenade thrown at the observers. Trapped in a cloud thicker and stronger than the gas fired from canisters, one international suffer mild facial burns from the gas.

Small children leaned out of windows to shout greetings to the foreign visitors, a far more interesting and unusual event to them than another army attack. A whole generation is growing up to think that being shot at is more normal than seeing a pale skinned stranger.

With the reasons for invasion unknown, speculation raged unchecked, fostering fear in a community accustomed to losing loved ones in Israeli attacks. When a stranger arrived claiming to be a foreign journalist he was immediately questioned. Where was he from and how did he get here now when everything is closed? He disappeared as soon as the gas bombs were thrown. Strange behaviour for a journalist. All the others were busy photographing the effects. Later, when a trusted contact at a local radio station called for an interview Palestinian friends advised us not to speak to him and not to trust anyone.

The drone and a helicopter are still overhead. The ground vehicles began to withdraw at 5:30pm at no clear end to their operation. What happened here today? No arrests or assassinations were reported, nothing was seized. Perhaps it was just a huge training exercise. Training for what? That would hardly in the spirit of peace.

As frequently as we report these abuses, we are told by people outside that they hear things are better here now, as though the only troubles are petty squabbles between two equal opponents. When will the media report this fairly? When will the world see that Israel is the aggressor here?

Tonight few people will sleep well here, fearing the start of a new campaign against them. It is the responsibility of the outside world to intervene to curb Israeli aggression.